In today’s fast-paced society, maintaining a healthy diet can be tricky. More often than not, we don’t get enough of the vitamins and minerals which our body’s require to keep up with the busy lives we lead. The results of this dearth of nutrition? Fatigue, belly fat, skin problems, erratic mood swings, insomnia, muscle cramps… The list goes on and on.
If some or all of these symptoms seem to describe you, there are probably one or more key nutrients that your diet is lacking. Read on for a list of 9 of the most common vitamins and minerals that you may not be getting enough of, learn the signs to look for which indicate a deficiency, then pick up a few tips on how to some naturally boost your body’s uptake of these important nutrients.
Calcium is responsible for growth and maintenance of strong teeth and bones. This is also where 99% of our calcium reserves are stored. Some lesser-known functions of this essential mineral include facilitating the transport of electrical signals throughout the nervous system, contraction of muscles and blood clotting. Calcium also plays a role in maintaining hormone balance, as well as kidney, liver and epidermal health.
When the body runs low on calcium, it borrows from the reserves stored in the skeletal system which can lead to loss of bone density and eventually osteoporosis. Other symptoms of calcium-deficiency include numbness in the extremities, muscle cramps or convulsions, lack of energy, poor appetite and abnormal heart rhythms.
We naturally lose small amounts of calcium every day as part of our bodies’ normal activities such as the growth of new skin, hair and nails, digestion of food and sweating. Because of this daily reduction and due to the fact that the human body cannot produce its own calcium, it is very important to eat foods which contain enough of the mineral to replenish our calcium levels. These include dark leafy greens like watercress and spinach, low-fat dairy such as mozzarella and yogurt, and soy products like tofu which are generally fortified with calcium.
Eating calcium-rich foods alone isn’t always enough to maintain a healthy level of this vital nutrient. If you believe that you may be calcium-deficienct, try to get outside and soak up a little sunlight each day. This will trigger vitamin D production in your skin which has a positive impact on calcium-absorption. Also, try adding a cup of Epsom salt to a warm bath and soak yourself for 10 – 15 minutes to up your magnesium levels which will further increase calcium uptake.
Things to avoid include antacid tablets, consumption of excessive protein or caffeine, cigarette smoke, alcohol, sugary sodas and high-sodium processed foods, all of which will reduce your body’s ability to properly digest calcium.
Iron has several important functions inside the human body. It is necessary for the production of hemoglobin, the protein in red blood cells which carries oxygen through the circulatory system. Iron is also required for growth of new cells and for hormone synthesis. While the average person needs only 8 – 18 mg daily, iron is very hard to digest and iron-deficiency is the common nutritional disorder in the world.
The signs of iron-deficiency are many and unfortunately, the majority of them are often attributed incorrectly to other illnesses. Fatigue, muscle cramps, mood swings, insomnia, dry skin and dizziness are all possible signs of the condition which are easily misdiagnosed. Other symptoms such as malformed finger and toe nails, swollen or sore tongue, paleness and pica (the urge to eat non-food items) are more specific to iron-deficiency.
If you believe that you have a deficiency and need to increase your iron levels, foods such as pumpkin seeds, almonds, molluscs (oysters, mussels and clams), lean red meat and liver are all excellent sources of this essential nutrient. However, even if your digestive tract is in perfect condition, you will still only absorb around 15% of the total bio-available iron from your food. Increase your uptake by eating foods high in vitamin C and avoid excessive consumption of foods high in caffeine and tannins (black tea, cocoa and coffee) which are iron inhibitors. Stay away from antacids after eating a meal high in iron and limit the amount of high-protein dairy products you consume with iron-rich foods. (For more on how to reverse an iron deficiency, this article goes into greater detail.)
While not as well-known as the first two elements on our list, magnesium is the most important nutrient in the entire human body. It plays a role in the regulation of several other minerals including calcium (as previously mentioned), potassium (coming up next), sodium and chloride. More importantly, our bodies require magnesium for over 300 enzymatic processes including those responsible for cellular regeneration, nerve and muscle function and immune response.
Due to this nutrient’s vast number of responsibilities, a deficiency in magnesium can manifest in many different ways. Frequent illness, blood sugar imbalance, hypertension, anxiety, migraines, insomnia, abnormal heart rhythm, muscle spasms and cramps rank among them. (You can find more detailed information about the signs in this article.)
Many foods provide good sources of magnesium. Raw spinach and other dark leafy greens, pumpkin seeds, oily fish like mackerel and tuna, lentils and avocados are some of the best. You can also try eating more fermented foods (sauerkraut, kefir, yogurt, etc) and foods high in protein to increase absorption in during digestion. However, the best way to boost your magnesium levels is not through diet. It’s through the skin. Run a warm bath, add a cup of Epsom salt (chemically known as epsomite, magnesium sulfate heptahydrate or MgSO4·7H2O ) to the water and soak for at least 10 – 15 minutes. This is the only excuse you’ll ever want or need to relax in a warm bath: It’s for your health!
Potassium is another very important mineral whose responsibilities include conduction of electrical signals throughout the body, contraction of smooth muscles (those found in hollow organs like the heart, lungs, bladder, stomach and intestines) and maintaining strong, healthy bones.
Potassium-deficiency is not as common as the previous three elements on our list. However, for those who indulge in excessive quantities of high-sodium foods like ready-made packaged meals, canned goods and salty snacks, the body’s need for potassium increases. Because this type of diet also tends to exclude fresh fruits and vegetables – the biggest providers of potassium – that need is very likely to go unsatisfied.
Signs such as fatigue, frequent muscle cramps or weakness, poor digestion, loose stool, irregular heartbeat and high blood pressure are all possible symptoms of potassium-deficiency. If you believe that you may be experiencing this nutritional disorder, it’s best to speak to your doctor and be tested.
In the mean time, try adding potassium-rich foods to your diet. Spinach, baked potatoes (skin-on), dried apricots, spaghetti squash, avocados, bananas, meat, fish and low-fat dairy are all good sources of this important nutrient.
Be sure you’re getting enough magnesium (see above) which will increase your absorption. As previously stated, a high-sodium diet will negatively impact your body’s potassium levels. Avoiding salty processed foods will go a long way toward correcting this deficiency.
Second only to iron, zinc is the most common trace mineral found in the human body. It is found in every cell and plays a wide variety of roles including wound-healing, blood clotting, DNA replication, immune response, and the proper function of thyroid, insulin and reproductive hormones. It is also responsible for maintaining healthy vision, olfaction (smell) and gustation (taste). Furthermore, zinc is an antioxidant and can aid in the prevention of heart disease, premature aging and some forms of cancer.
Zinc is a trace mineral, meaning the human body doesn’t need very much to maintain good health. However, over-consumption of alcoholic beverages, as well as severely restrictive or irregular dieting can cause a deficiency in this essential mineral. Symptoms of zinc-deficiency include frequent illnesses, rapid weight-loss, lack of appetite, thinning hair, stunted growth, slow wound-healing and weak senses (sight, smell and taste), as well as chronic skin problems like acne, eczema or psoriasis.
Missed or irregular periods, night blindness, mood swings, impotence or depression are also sometimes caused by low zinc levels. White spots on the fingernails are another possible warning sign.
(Your fingernails are one of the best early-warning systems in your entire body! Learn how to read the signs in this article.)
To naturally increase your zinc levels, enjoy foods like oysters and lean red meat, toasted wheat germ, pepitas, spinach and pine nuts. If you believe that you have a deficiency, you’ll also want to avoid eating calcium-rich foods alongside those high in zinc as these two mineral compete for absorption in the small intestine.
It is important to note that having too much zinc in your diet can hinder copper absorption. If you choose to take zinc supplements (speak to your doctor first!) you’ll want to be sure to include around 2 mg of copper as well.
6. Vitamin B12
Also known as cobalamin, vitamin B12 is the largest & most complex vitamin currently known to humankind. It is needed for several important functions including immune support, hormone regulation, production of red blood cells, maintaining a healthy nervous system and the replication of DNA and RNA.
A short-term deficiency of vitamin B12 may appear in the form of fatigue, shortness of breath, loss of appetite, irregular digestion or excessive gas, erratic mood swings, depression, nervousness, poor circulation in the extremities or Glossitis – a condition commonly referred to as “bald tongue.” (You can read more about the warning signs your tongue may be trying to send you in this article.)
Due to its role in red blood cell production, B12-deficiency may also occur simultaneously with an iron-deficiency. If left untreated, a severe lack of vitamin B12 can cause permanent damage to the brain and nerves.
Because vitamin B12 is largely obtained through the diet from animal sources, vegetarians and vegans have a higher risk for deficiency. Diabetics, people who experience frequent ulcers caused by H. pylori bacteria or those who have undergone weight-loss surgery are also at risk of developing B12-deficiency. Alcoholism and certain eating disorders are also common causes.
Vitamin B12 is naturally present in all forms of red meat, poultry, fish and eggs. Some soy products are also fortified with B12.
If you believe that you may have a deficiency and your dietary B12 intake meets the recommended daily allowance (between 1.5 – 3 µg), the cause may be due to an imbalance of gut flora. Try adding more fermented foods to your diet to promote better digestion and absorption of vitamin B12.
7. Vitamin D
Vitamin D is most widely known for the dual role it plays with calcium – to strengthen the skeletal system in developing children and then to help us retain bone-density as we grow older. Without adequate levels of vitamin D, the human body cannot properly absorb calcium from food. Thus the vitamin has an impact on all of the same functions and systems supported by the mineral (nervous, circulatory, endocrine, etc – see #1). Additionally, maintaining a healthy level of vitamin D is also linked to significantly lower risk of many forms of cancer including colon, prostate, breast, skin and pancreatic.
A short-term deficiency of vitamin D may manifest in the form of depression or a weakened immune system, as well as numbness in the extremities, muscle cramps or convulsions, lack of energy, poor appetite and abnormal heart rhythms (the same as calcium). In the long-term, vitamin D-deficiency can cause rickets in developing children and osteoporosis or osteomalacia (softening of the bones) in adults, as well as increased risk of developing multiple sclerosis, diabetes and heart disease.
Vitamin D is unique on our list in that – under the right circumstances – our bodies are naturally capable of produce enough of it that we need little to no dietary intake of the nutrient. This is fortunate, because only a handful of foods naturally contain vitamin D and those fortified with it (milk, soy, etc) provide only very small amounts (around 10% RDA per serving.)
While supplementation is an option, as are eating foods like eggs, mushrooms, oily fish, and fortified soy or dairy products; the best way to ensure that your body has enough vitamin D is to go outside and get some sun. (You can find more information about vitamin D and sun exposure here.)
8. Vitamin A
Vitamin A (also known as retinol, retinal or retinoic acid) is a fat-soluable nutrient which is most commonly recognized for its ability to promote strong, healthy vision. Vitamin A also plays an important role in supporting the immune system by fortifying mucous membranes in the mouth, nose and sinuses; as well as cellular regeneration which encompasses wound-healing, growth and development, bone formation and many other vital bodily processes. Because it is an antioxidant, maintaining a healthy level of vitamin A also lowers the risk of many forms of cancer, including skin, breast, cervical, esophageal and colon cancers.
A deficiency in vitamin A often manifests first in the eyes in the form of frequent dry eye and poor night vision. Other symptoms which may appear due to lack of this important nutrient include skin problems, frequent respiratory infections, digestive issues and unusually slow wound-healing.
You can naturally increase your body’s supply of vitamin A by eating colorful fruits and vegetables like sweet potatoes, apricots, carrots, squash and pumpkin. Also, because it is fat soluble, adding a tablespoon of butter, coconut or babassu oil to meals rich in vitamin A will improve your body’s ability to absorb this important nutrient.
Please note that consuming vitamin A in excess of the recommended daily allowance (3,000 IU for men and 2,300 IU for women) can be toxic. Should you choose to take a supplement, never exceed the RDA without first consulting with your physician.
9. Vitamin E
Vitamin E (also known as alpha-tocopherol) is another fat soluble nutrient with antioxidant properties and functions similar to vitamin A. The human body needs vitamin E to maintain healthy cholesterol levels, for immune support and for the proper function and upkeep of muscle tissue – specifically muscles related to vision and eye health. Vitamin E is also being studied for its ability to prevent and treat Alzheimer’s disease.
Deficiency of vitamin E may cause symptoms such as frequent muscle cramps or twitching – especially around the eyes. In the long-term, a lack of vitamin E in the diet can lead to diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, Alzheimer’s disease, macular degeneration and certain forms of heart disease.
Eat more foods high in vitamin E including dark leafy greens, almonds, pepitas and other seeds. Avocados and other plant oils are also excellent sources. Remember, vitamin E is fat-soluble so adding healthy lipids to meals containing this nutrient will increase your body’s absorption.
Please note that consuming quantities of vitamin E which exceed the recommended daily allowance (15 mg for adults, higher for breast-feeding mothers) can be dangerous. For this reason, vitamin E supplements are not recommended unless otherwise instructed by your physician.